Will Duluth taxpayers face another school tax increase?
Sarah Horner Duluth News Tribune
Just months after raising taxes to pay for its controversial long-range facilities plan, the Duluth School Board soon will be asking residents to dig deeper into their pockets to support school programs, only this time Duluthians don’t have to say yes.
Duluthians will have to vote yes on an operational levy this fall before the district can raise taxes to pay for academic and extra-curricular school programs.
Given the hot political climate still reeling from being shut out of the first vote, some board members say they worry the community will take out its frustration by voting no this fall. Board members have begun holding strategy sessions to avoid that.
“I do not think some of the decisions this board has made in the past will make this easy. … Losing all the schools in the central part of town is not going to make this easy,” board member Laura Condon said at a meeting last week. “I am smart enough to know that if we aren’t very careful and circumspect with this; [the levy] is going to go down.”
Conversations about what the levy will include still are preliminary, but district administrators are asking board members to consider a multilevel ballot question, said Bill Hanson, business services director for the district. The ballot probably would ask voters to check which level of funding they would be comfortable giving the Duluth school district; the number could range from $365 per pupil to $1,400 per pupil.
The current operating levy in place for the district, which expires in 2009, is for $365. If community members renew the levy at that amount they won’t see their taxes go up; any other number would lead to an increase, Hanson said.
Board member Ann Wasson said she is in favor of asking for as much as $1,400, the top figure allowed under state statute. Based on estimates for future inflation rates and spending costs, district administrators said the district probably would need to take in at least $1,100 per pupil unit to sustain current school district programs.
“I don’t think Duluth should be average. I think Duluth should be exceptional, so we need to strive for as much as we can,” Wasson said. She said that without raising the levy, the district will be facing another round of deep budget cuts next year. “We have already cut so many millions from our budget that I can’t imagine cutting more,” she said.
If the levy gets renewed at the current amount, the district will face about $3 million in cuts next year. If no levy gets approved, the district will be looking at a $7 million deficit, Hanson said. The district still is trying to work out what kind of deficit, if any, the district would face if a higher levy gets voted in.
Board members also are grappling with whether to make certain promises to voters if they approve a levy, such as reinstating a seven-period day. Superintendent Keith Dixon warned the board against making promises they might not be able to keep without knowing what the Minnesota state legislator will do with future education spending. During the last levy, the Duluth School Board promised not to raise class sizes, a promise they broke during the last budget session when they faced a $6 million deficit.
The board might also consider dipping into its reserve fund to show the community its willingness to make its own financial sacrifices, though opinions vary widely on the board on whether that’s a smart move.
Whatever the approach, board member Gary Glass said the levy will be a tough sell.
“There is whole crowd of people that voted me in that are made as hell because they didn’t get to vote on the red plan,” he said.
Board member Mary Cameron said she understands the uphill battle ahead, but said she’s optimistic that with the right educational campaign the community will support the levy.
“The bottom line is that the kids are going to suffer if this doesn’t pass, and I just can’t see the people of this community doing that to them. Duluth is too well-known for caring about its public education,” Cameron said. “I would rather see them repeal us as board members than make the kids suffer.”
The board will meet to discuss the levy again after its regularly scheduled Business Committee meeting at
4:30 p.m. August 11. They plan to pass a resolution articulating the specifics of the levy August 19. The levy referendum would be held November 4.
SARAH HORNER covers K-12 education. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5342 or by
e-mail at shorner@duluth